Author Q&A with Sage Cohen

In December I received a copy of Sage Cohen’s latest book, The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less and Create Success. I immediately devoured it. Sage’s approach is one that really resonates with me and her book helped me think big while also helping me to map out some small steps to make the “big” possible.

Today I’m thrilled to share a Q&A exchange I had with Sage about her book and about writing in general. If you have a question, please post it in the comments section. Sage will drop by to answer questions and offer insight. Because I think Sage’s book is so amazing, I will be sending a copy to one lucky reader. All comments posted by 12 am on Wednesday, March 16 will be eligible for the drawing. (If you already have the book, let me know and I won’t enter your name in the drawing.) And now, here’s Sage!

In The Productive Writer, you offer great, easy-to-implement strategies for building a writing life alongside one’s day job. In your experience, how did you know when you were ready to quit your day job and fully embrace your life as a freelance writer? Along those lines, how did you go about finding clients for whom you could provide business writing services?

I started my own marketing communications agency when I was 27, with only a few years of “day job” experience under my belt. I knew it was time to go out on my own because I was having anxiety attacks as I sat around the big conference room table, giving my status report about work I pretending mightily to care about.

When I started freelancing, my expenses were very low and my threshold for risk was very high. I was blessed with a few, great projects to start that have been snowballing ever since into satisfied clients and enthusiastic referrals and more work. What seems to happen is I’ll work with a team of people at one company. Eventually, several of them will leave and find employment elsewhere. Then, I’ll get hired by those same folks at their new enterprise, connect with new teams of people there, and the web of work keeps growing organically in this way. I’ve done a bit of proactive networking, which I always enjoy, and virtually no marketing for the past 14 years.

For me, the more significant project since starting my business in 1997 has been balancing my day job of writing marketing communications copy for clients in parallel with my creative writing: poems, essays, and nonfiction books. It has amounted to two, related but distinct full-time jobs.

I so appreciated your suggestions around file organization – both electronic and hard copy. What would you recommend to someone like me, who needs to revise my file system, but has (ahem) a lot of files already stored on her hard drive. Would you go back and re-organize according to the new system? Or, start with a “clean slate” for 2011?

I’d probably start with whatever feels like the most fun — to get yourself in motion toward this goal. (Being in motion is always the most important part; once you are moving, you can fine-tune whatever you’re doing to serve you best.) To this end, I might suggest that you choose a naming convention and start using it with any new projects starting today.

Then, once you have a feel for it, and see how it’s making your working life easier and more efficient, you can make a plan for renaming older files–but only if there’s a reason to. If you find yourself searching for materials in past files frequently, then it would probably make sense to start archiving those in a way that made the writing more accessible. You could choose some kind of reasonable goal, such as spending one hour every Sunday evening renaming/reorganizing historical files. After a month, you could evaluate if this work is feeling worthwhile and giving you more value — by making information easier to find. It it’s not, then I’d invite you to spend that hour doing something else that contributes to the momentum of your productive writing life!

Your phrase, “professional instead of perfect” is now posted on my computer. Can you share with readers how this came to be a focus of yours?

Ah, yes! So glad to hear that phrase resonates with you! I tell a story in The Productive Writer about a t-shirt my mother gave me years ago. On it, there’s a skeleton in a summer dress wearing a straw hat, seated on a park bench. The caption below the image says, “Waiting for Mr. Right.”

For me, this sums up the quest for perfection in general. We humans aren’t perfect, and we’re not designed to be. For years and years I expected perfection of myself, and this left me quaking in my boots, afraid of my own shadow, terrified of being discovered as a “fraud” whenever my imperfections might be discovered. As I have been seasoned by life and work, I have come to understand that our beauty, paradoxically, is in the flaws, the vulnerability, the humanity that makes us unique individuals and not automatons.

Along the way, I discovered that it’s those clumsy moments that make people laugh, that help them see their own, imperfect selves in whatever I’m writing or presenting. We connect through vulnerability, not perfection. And what I want from my writing and my life is to connect with other people in meaningful ways. In fact, these days when I stand up to read to an audience from The Productive Writer, I’ll point out that “reigns” is spelled wrong / used incorrectly throughout the book. At least three people proofed this book, and we all missed it. So it goes with the human condition.

What I’ve learned is much more important–and a far better way of creating meaningful relationships–is to commit to being a professional — which to me means doing the very best I can, and then letting go. A professional delivers what was promised, addresses any mistakes quickly and responsibly, meets deadlines (or renegotiates in a responsible and respectful way), and generally commits to improving over time. The professional writer doesn’t revise a piece to extinction or let fear suffocate all possibility out of a piece. She sends her writing out into the world when she knows she’s done her best and learns from whatever happens next. We can only do our part.

What is the one mistake you see most writers make in terms of hindering their own productivity?

I think fear is the number one productivity kabosher. We’ve just talked about perfectionism, which is one face of fear. Procrastination is another big one. Endless revision or research that is preventing you from sending the darn thing out is likely to be yet another facet of fear. Chances are good that if there’s some goal you have in your writing life that you’re not moving toward, fear is at the root. I have an entire chapter in The Productive Writer dedicated to helping writers work with fear so that it becomes a source of fuel rather than a dead end. Honing your craft is, of course, supremely important. And, having a working relationship with fear will help you ensure that that your writing will leave your desk in search of its rightful place in the world, with the very best chances of landing well.

You asked for one, but I’m going to offer a second, critical mistake writers make: thinking there is only one way to do something, and then giving up when that way doesn’t work. It’s easy to choose a hero, decide that their particular writing career trajectory is not available to us for whatever reason, and get discouraged. It’s also easy to let disappointment derail us if a piece was rejected by a publication in which we were eager to see it published. As I see it, a productive writer simply keeps trying new ways until she finds one that catches and gets the gears turning. Find role models who inspire you, and let go of the ones who short-circuit you. Find ways to make rejections opportunities to learn about new markets, new approaches to querying, new ways to package, present and promote what you have to offer.

There’s always a way forward in the writing life. The productive writer commits to finding hers.


Many thanks to Sage for joining us here at Motherlogue!

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16 Responses to Author Q&A with Sage Cohen

  1. Jeff Huffman says:

    Hi Sage – I just bought your book a couple of weeks ago and by Chapter 1 I had started writing again. What you said is quite true – fear in some manifestation kept me from doing what I know I can do and what others have told me I can do as well. The key that got me started was the writing the letter to myself of where I want to be as a writer. In the same letter I started writing directly to myself and “counseled” myself into getting past that first step, realizing “It’ll probably be rocky if you’re not exactly confident, but you’ll eventually get the hang of it.” This is now helping me get a few other personal projects moving. Question for you – do you ever write to yourself as a means to bring out the internal debate or indecision that may be in your head on something?

  2. Sage Cohen says:

    Jeff, How wonderful! By Chapter 1, you had moved yourself through your own block: well done! Yes, I think the primary reason I write–and why I came to writing in the first place–is to help myself understand what I know / think / believe, and to move myself through something that is hard into some new place of greater clarity or grace. Writing can be a very powerful mode of transportation. I’d love it if you’d keep me posted about your journey with writing from here!

  3. Sage Cohen says:

    Liz, Just wanted to thank you so much for having me here today. It is a pleasure to be with you and your community of writers!

  4. Liz says:

    Sage, thank you! Glad to have you here. It’s great to hear of the impact your book is having in other writer lives besides my own.

  5. Jan Udlock says:

    Liz, you hit great key points with your interview! Nicely done. How did you find (and get the courage to ask) Sage?

    Sage, I’ve been successful in writing for regional parenting mags but I want to expand my horizons. Do you see blogging as an option? What are the benefits for a writer that wants to stay in the parenting field?

  6. Sage Cohen says:

    Hi, Jan! Blogging is certainly one way to build and audience and share wisdom about parenting, while reinforcing your expertise. It really depends on what your goals are. How, exactly, are you wanting to expand your horizons, and what do you want the end goals to be? That will determine which steps you will take and which opportunities you should pursue today and tomorrow.

  7. Joanna says:

    I love the idea of committing to professionalism rather than perfectionism. Years ago I suffered from perfection angst and then realized I needed to let that go to get my words out there (and to make any money). I’ve learned that most of my stuff will get edited anyway, so why sweat it? Thank you for framing the concept so articulately. Truly, it’s the only way to be a writer.

  8. Sage Cohen says:

    Amen, Joanna. Perfectionism really is a kind of suffering. Here’s to the magnificently flawed writing life!

  9. Liz says:

    Thanks, all, for a great discussion! I like thinking about writing to myself to bring out that internal dialogue, as well as considering new horizons and the goals that get me there…and yes, moving beyond perfectionism. It is so freeing! Check back tomorrow for the results of the drawing.

  10. “let fear suffocate all possibility out of a piece” Well said Sage, and I can resonate, having three (gulp!) novels-in-progress and one more floating around my brain and heart. I can’t wait to get my hands on your book! As a fulltime working mom of two with a passion for fiction, do you have any advice for focusing on one big project at a time and not getting derailed by multiple writing opportunities that don’t neccessarily line up with one’s true goal?

  11. Sage Cohen says:

    Hi, Mary Jo, Just want to point out that not everyone is a “one big project at a time” type of person and writer. Just in case you’re making things harder for yourself by trying to operate in a way that is not most natural for you. The key to success, I believe, is learning to understand our nature and rhythms–and then finding the most effective ways to leverage those strengths for our success. So maybe if you’re a natural multi-tasker, that one, big goal could have lots of smaller goals (researching for the novel, researching markets, blogging to build an audience, taking a workshop to improve craft, etc.) that could satisfy that need to be doing different tasks/projects while all building toward that primary goal. It also helps to be extremely clear about what your motivation is for that big-picture goal, as this will help you stay on task at distracting and discouraging times along the way. And, of course, you want to be crystal clear about what those big goals are, as this makes it far easier to evaluate each opportunity along the way to understand if and how it can contribute to what you’re striving to accomplish.

  12. Liz says:

    The lucky winner of Sage’s book is…JOANNA! Please send me an e-mail with your mailing address, Joanna. Again thanks to Sage for writing the book and for your responses to our thoughts and questions. Here’s to unleashing the productive writer in all of us!

  13. Liz says:

    Sorry, I forgot to add two things: I use a random number selector to choose winners (no favoritism here at Motherlogue) and be sure to check out Sage’s website, where you can join her e-newsletter for free.

  14. Joanna says:

    Holy cow, that’s two writing-related prizes in one week!! My stars must be aligned. Thanks so much, Liz and Sage, for this discussion.

  15. Jenni says:

    So sorry I missed out on the party here last week, but I want to thank you, Liz, for a great interview. I want to chime in and say that I’m also struck by the perfectionism vs. professionalism section of the interview. Not many things could be more timely or true for me. And as for perfectionism being a kind of suffering, I think that’s what will be taped above my computer!

  16. Pingback: Blogathon Theme: Five Favorite Writing Books | Motherlogue

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